Brief lockout reveals employers lack nerves of steel

Many Numsa members are employed by Seifsa companies. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Many Numsa members are employed by Seifsa companies. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

A short-lived attempt by the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa) to enforce a lockout among its members at the beginning of the week could indicate a high level of nervousness on behalf of employers, say analysts.

Seifsa, the industry body representing metal and engineering ­companies – the largest in the bargaining council – issued the notice of an employee lockout last Friday.

It was planned to coincide with a strike by 220 000 National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) members, who downed tools on Monday. Many Numsa members are employed by Seifsa companies.

Essentially, the lockout would have meant that employees from all 2 200 Seifsa-affiliated companies would be ­prevented from working during the strike, whether or not they were participating.

Seifsa’s notice would force a ­stoppage of more than half of the industry’s workforce. It included workers at companies that were suppliers to the platinum mines, which are reeling from the barely ended five-month-long strike in that sector. 

Seifsa told the Mail & Guardian that the lockout was a “tactic to counter the declaration of strike action against employers”.

“A lockout is a legitimate option available to employers in terms of our Labour Relations Act in the event of a strike – especially when there is potential for violence,” said Seifsa’s chief executive, Kaizer Nyatsumba.

Desperate move
“Employers are deeply concerned about the effect that the strike will have on the manufacturing ­sector and the accompanying levels of violence.”

But industry experts say that lockouts are seen as a desperate move on the part of the employer to get workers to accede to their demands.

The employer in effect “starves the employees into submission”, said labour analyst Andrew Levy in a previous interview with the M&G.

“They are not paid during that period. It is far more damaging to employment relations than a strike.”

Joe Mothibi, a labour lawyer at Norton Rose Fulbright, agreed.

“It’s important to realise that nobody wins,” he said.

Numsa is demanding a 12% to 15% increase for its members in a ­one-year (rather than the offered three-year) wage deal, and the banning of all labour brokers in the sector. Employers have reportedly offered between 5.6% and 8%.

‘Shut down places’
Some have suggested that an increased nervousness could exist among employers after the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) secured an unprecedented salary increase to end its economically crippling five-month strike.

On their first day off work, Numsa members told the Star that they had been inspired by the recent “success” of Amcu.

“If workers in the platinum mines can do it, we can also do it,” said one.

Trade union Solidarity, whose members never planned to strike, objected strongly to the notice.

“They will shut down places where they aren’t even unionised.” Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of the union, told the M&G on Sunday.

Seifsa subsequently withdrew its lockout notice to Solidarity on Monday, following a meeting with the union.

According to the department of labour’s Industrial Action report, the number of lockouts increased from three in 2011 to eight in 2012 (figures for last year have not yet been published).

At the time the report was published, Levy said that South Africans could expect more lockouts.

“The bargaining environment is so difficult and unions are refusing to move,” he said.

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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